The threat to Europe from bird flu made all the headlines in October but has since dropped down the news agenda. But new outbreaks and continued emergency planning shows the possibility of a pandemic is still very real.
Germany will allow poultry outside this week for the first time since October
Budget problems, diplomatic spats with Iran, trade arguments with the United States and, of course, the looming Christmas holidays; the pages of the European press are full of news telling the people that the continent has a lot on its plate this December.
But thankfully there's very little about bird flu. There are fewer headlines about poultry culls on the front pages, rare reports on panic buying of the Tamiflu vaccine and when the disease does find its way past stories about the top 10 toys to buy this Christmas, it comes in the form of seemingly good news.
On Wednesday, Germany announced that it was lifting its restrictions on keeping poultry shut inside because the season in which birds migrate from Europe to warmer climes has ended. Germany's Friedrich Löffler scientific institute, advisors to the German government on bird diseases, also reduced its risk assessment on the spread of the disease to Germany to low from "high to moderate."
And it's not just Germany either. Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among the other European countries which are now relaxing their regulations on poultry.
Europe can breathe a sigh of relief and join in a collective chorus of "that was a close one."
Or can it?
Ukrai n e a n d Roma n ia a n n ou n ce n ew H5N1 outbreaks
In Ukraine, 11 out of 25 quarantined villages have been confirmed as H5N1 outbreaks.
At the same time that Germany announced it will allow chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and pheasants to breed outdoors for the first time since being confined to sheds in mid-October, Ukraine admitted that bird flu has been detected in 25 villages in the country's Crimea peninsula, 11 of which have confirmed outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain.
Nearly 54,000 birds had been rounded up and destroyed in the affected villages and 513 residents remain under medical observation. President Viktor Yushchenko has invoked a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, four villages in southeast Romania have been quarantined after the presence of an H5-subtype of bird flu was confirmed, suggesting that the virus was spreading outside the Danube Delta, where the deadly H5N1 virus has been confirmed in recent weeks.
In areas of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Bulgaria import bans and culls continue. Bulgaria banned import and transit of poultry meat, eggs and live birds from Ukraine while Russia, which has its own H5N1 outbreaks to contend with, and Kazakhstan imposed similar bans this month.
Huma n death toll rises i n the Far East
The Far East continues to be the epicenter of bird flu outbreaks.
In the Far East, where the most recent outbreaks originated from, the human death toll continues to rise. Indonesia confirmed its ninth human death from bird flu on Tuesday, taking the global death toll from the disease to 71, all in Asia.
In Vietnam, a toddler who died on Monday was suspected of having succumbed to the disease although doctors have ruled out the H5N1 virus as the cause despite large numbers of dead ducks being found near the child's home in the city of Can Tho.
While bird flu has dropped down the western European news agenda, governments on the continent are still hugely concerned about the threat of a flu pandemic among humans which could kill millions and cause massive economic losses.
Europe worki n g hard to protect a n d pla n
The EU announced that it would have sufficient plans and vaccines in place by 2007.
France recently announced that confinement measures it enforced in October would be extended until the end of May. Spain's Agriculture Ministry followed suit said it was extending measures imposed on Nov. 30 through to May 31. Germany said it will review its own situation before bird migration begins again next year.
The European Union is continuing to plan for a pandemic and announced this week that it would be prepared for such an event by 2007.
"Over the next couple of months, I think Europe will be much better off than any other continent to face a pandemic," European Commission director of public health Fernand Sauer told a news conference in Stockholm on Wednesday.
"We are in a time of 'peace', and in a time of peace we have to prepare ... to mitigate the effects" of a pandemic, he said. "At the end of 2007, potentially we could cover between 20 and 25 percent of the European population ... If (a pandemic) happens next week, there will be a shortage (of vaccines) but if it happens in 2007, there will probably be enough," he added.
The much-publicized scare of October may have passed from Europe's public consciousness but the continent is far from delivering an "all-clear." The current lull may just be the calm before the storm.